The face of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi that was broadcast on television yesterday looked nothing like ferocious. He was scraped and bruised, his skin drained of color, tinted the ghostly white of the newly dead.
Probably more because of the brutality of his tactics than the size of his following, al-Zarqawi, alive, had been the face of the insurgency in Iraq. What remains to be seen is whether the face shown yesterday will come to represent the beginning of the end of the insurgency that has cost more than 2,500 American lives and thousands more Iraqis.
U.S. and Iraqi officials announced yesterday that al-Zarqawi was killed Wednesday, when Air Force F-16 warplanes dropped two 500-pound bombs on a house north of Baghdad.
To reach al-Zarqawi, military officials said that Special Operations forces had tracked a person known as al-Zarqawi's spiritual adviser, Sheik Abdul Rahman, to the house that was bombed. Rahman was also killed, along with four others.
"Today Zarqawi was defeated," said Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, appearing at a news conference with U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the top U.S. military commander in Iraq. "This is a message to all those who use violence, killing and devastation to disrupt life in Iraq to rethink within themselves before it is too late."
Al-Zarqawi, though, in becoming head of Al-Qaida in Iraq, inspired hundreds or possibly thousands of followers, many of them apparently determined to kill Iraqi Shiites and Americans, and willing to die in the course of their actions.
To reach his level of notoriety, al-Zarqawi orchestrated the poor man's answer to the deadly assaults of Sept. 11, 2001. Lacking the resources Osama bin Laden had before his organization's attacks in the United States, al-Zarqawi's spectacle of choice began with a wave of hostage-takings in Iraq in May 2004.
That was when he and his followers videotaped the beheading of Nicholas Berg, a young American businessman from Pennsylvania, and posted the scene on the Internet. It was claimed that al-Zarqawi wielded the knife.
Even in a post-Sept. 11 world, the grisliness of the execution was shocking.
More kidnappings, suicide bombings and beheadings would follow. Hundreds of them. And the more U.S. officials spoke of al-Zarqawi, the more powerful he seemed, to the point where he managed to marry man and myth and become a legend to a lethal following of jihadists.
In reality, al-Zarqawi has been only a part of the violence that has killed so many Iraqis since the U.S. invasion. While his followers have been on the attack, so have independent gangs and criminals, many of them released by Saddam Hussein just before the war began.
Myth or mastermind, he claimed responsibility for attacks in which authorities say he almost certainly played no part, including the train bombings in Madrid.
No matter to his followers; they had seen what he could do. Finally, thanks to his ability to avoid capture by the world's most powerful military, an insurgency of shadowy figures gained a recognizable face: a high school dropout who as a young man had been known for little aside from using drugs and getting drunk.
"He had a burning hatred, generated fear and had a bit of street cred," said Jonathan Stevenson, a professor at the strategic research department of the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., listing reasons for al-Zarqawi's rise.
"The other point is, he was casting about for jihadist credentials well before the U.S. went into Iraq and so latched on to a pre-existing trend of religious radicalization in that country."
Al-Zarqawi was believed to be 39.
As a young man, he reportedly worked to overthrow the monarchy of his native Jordan, and he had long made clear his belief that Israel should be annihilated along with its sponsor, the United States.
He had strong ties to al-Qaida before the Sept. 11 attacks. He is believed to have run a training camp in Herat, Afghanistan, with al-Qaida money, and he fought alongside the Taliban during the U.S.-led invasion.
In 2002, in a speech to the United Nations, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell pointed to al-Zarqawi's presence in Iraq as proof that Saddam Hussein was conspiring with al-Qaida.
That helped lead to just what al-Zarqawi wanted: a chance to kill Americans - and they were coming to him.
He openly called for the sectarian battles that have blown up between his fellow Sunni Muslims and members of Iraq's Shiite majority. He also is believed to have set up numerous cells across Iraq capable of operating without him.
"His removal will take some recruiting steam out of the movement, but that movement is so dispersed and so metastasized that his absence may not make a big difference for very long," said Stevenson.